Tue.
Oct 20
2020
Has COVID-19 Changed the Outlook for Telehealth?

Photo: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash

The pandemic turned out to be a litmus test for healthcare worldwide. COVID-19 demonstrated that very few countries’ systems could operate properly in times of such tremendous pressure and disruption. As a result, we will likely witness multiple changes in healthcare as quarantine measures start to recede.

One of the major shifts will come from the changing perception of telehealth. In times of pandemic, this tool has expanded access to care when many patients were not able to leave their homes or reach out to doctors. The fact that it carries zero risk of catching or transmitting an infection has further promoted telehealth both as a safe and necessary instrument.

Shifting Perceptions

Previously approached with some skepticism, telehealth has turned out to be a resilient and promising component of the healthcare system, whose potential might be extremely effective in times of crisis. Already this year we will likely witness a substantial increase in the use of this tool.

According to a report by McKinsey, the adoption of telehealth has skyrocketed: amid the pandemic, 46% of U.S. consumers have turned to telehealth as a replacement for traditional doctor visits, compared to just 11% in 2019. More than 60% of patients claimed that the pandemic has boosted their willingness to try telehealth, according to a survey by Sykes. Another survey by Sage Growth Partner and Black Book Market Research showed that 25% of respondents had used telehealth prior to the pandemic, while 59% reported they are more likely to use the tool now than previously, and 33% would even leave their physician in favor of a telehealth provider.

Although telehealth services were previously available could only to “established” patients of a physician, the pandemic has encouraged providers to expanded patient coverage.

In March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded telehealth to encompass Medicare beneficiaries that allow those living in homes and healthcare settings outside of rural areas to use online services to receive preventive health screenings and mental health services. In April, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a $200 million telehealth program to help providers purchase telemedicine equipment and necessary devices. Thus, the biggest administrative barriers to telehealth — HIPAA privacy standards and lack of acceptance by some insurance carriers — have been changing at an unprecedented rate.

Expansion

Telehealth providers have scaled offerings and witnessed an increase of 50-175 times in their number of patients. McKinsey further projects that the market will soon grow from an estimated $3 billion before the pandemic to $250 billion. Most of this increase may come from U.S. healthcare ultimately going digital. A different report by Global Market Insights offers a more modest forecast, arguing that the market is set to be valued at $175.5 billion by 2026.

Telehealth is likely to be implemented at a continuously growing scale. The report by McKinsey states that approximately 20% of all emergency room visits could be avoided in favor of virtual offerings. Another 24% of healthcare office visits and outpatient services, as well as up to 35% of regular home health attendant services could be taken online, and 2% of all outpatient volume could be shifted to the home setting.

Thorny Transition

Although telehealth has successfully passed the test of the pandemic, there is still significant demand for broadening access and integrating new technologies. We will likely see an ongoing evolution in this sector until the COVID vaccine becomes widely available. According to GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s largest vaccine maker, this might not happen before the second half of next year.

But before the wide-scale implementation of telehealth and its ultimate integration into the broader healthcare system, there are multiple issues that have to be resolved. The report by McKinsey points to a gap between consumers’ interest in telehealth (76%) and actual usage (46%). Providers will need to invest heavily into increasing public awareness of telehealth offerings and broaden the scope of information channels that explain the benefits of this approach.

Another major concern is that a large share of the market does not believe that telehealth will retain its current popularity after the crisis. While many businesses acknowledge the tremendous utility of telehealth at a time when traditional healthcare often falls short, they are reluctant to invest in its long-term growth. This approach could be a faulty one, as many signs point to the fact that customers are strongly satisfied with telehealth, whose popularity has been growing even since before the pandemic.

Overall, COVID-19 has turned out to be a powerful trigger for the emergence of telehealth as a vital component of the traditional healthcare system.

Most importantly, the pandemic has changed attitudes within the healthcare sector, which is notorious for resisting reforms. Telehealth is now increasingly viewed as a crisis-driven innovation that works at the crossroads of technology, traditional healthcare, and doctor-patient relations to provide essential care when existing methods are no longer able to keep up.

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Dmitriy Frolovskiy

By Dmitriy Frolovskiy

Dmitriy Frolovskiy is a political analyst and consultant.